“Tradition! Tradition!” (Sermon on Mark 7:1-13, by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
“Tradition! Tradition!” (Mark 7:1-13)
In the musical “Fiddler on the Roof,” the lead character, Tevye, sings out, “Tradition! Tradition!” And then he explains: “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything: how to sleep, how to eat, how to work, how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask: How did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you: I don’t know. But it’s a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
“Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Oh really, Tevye? Is tradition really such a clear indicator of God’s will? Is tradition, in fact, even a good thing? You might not think so, Tevye, if you listen to Rabbi Jesus in our Gospel reading today. Jesus seems to be pretty well set against tradition.
Listen to what he says. Jesus calls the scribes and Pharisees “hypocrites” and says to them, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” And again, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” And again, he says, “You are making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” Tradition? Jesus seems to be saying, “Phooey on tradition!”
So, if that’s the case, if tradition is bad, what should we do about this in the church, today? Perhaps we need to get rid of our traditions. That’s what many would advocate, and that’s what many churches are doing. “Get rid of the crucifix! That will just turn people off. Don’t make the sign of the cross! That’s too Catholic. Get rid of the liturgy! Who needs that boring old stuff? Oh, I suppose we could shove it off to a Saturday afternoon service or an early-Sunday-morning ‘traditional’ service, for the old folks who are still stuck in the past. ‘Traditional’? Bad. ‘Contemporary’? Good.” That’s what’s been going on in the church for the last thirty years or so. “We need to set ourselves free from ‘the traditions of the elders’! Out with the old, in with the new!” And I suppose the anti-tradition people would cite our text today and Jesus’ own words to bolster their case.
But is that what Jesus is really railing against in our text? Tradition, per se? Or is there something more to it than that? I mean, after all, Jesus himself did keep some of the traditions. He went regularly to the synagogue–“as was his custom,” the gospels add. He went up to Jerusalem for the annual pilgrimage festivals. It appears that Jesus was not against all tradition.
The word “tradition” means “something handed down,” handed down from one generation to the next. It could be a traditional teaching or a traditional practice. But the teaching or practice is neither good nor bad simply because it has been handed down. There are other factors that come into play.
You can see the Apostle Paul, for example, using the language of tradition in a positive sense, as a good thing. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul tells the Corinthians, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Here he’s speaking about good worship practices. And a little later in that same chapter, Paul tells them: “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed,” etc. Paul here is applying the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, which he received and then passed on to the Corinthians, to their practice of it. “What I received from the Lord I delivered to you.” I passed it on. That’s tradition.
Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul writes: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved. . . . For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. . . .” Do those words sound familiar? They should. Paul’s words–the tradition he passed on–have found their way into the church’s creeds. Paul is speaking of passing on, delivering, that which has been received–and that this can even save people! It does so when it’s the traditional teaching of the person and work of Christ, the Savior of sinners. This is tradition in the good sense.
Another example, Paul to the Thessalonians: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us.” Or Paul writing to Timothy: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” That’s multi-generational tradition! And the apostle wants it to happen.
So what’s the deal? There are all these examples in the New Testament commending tradition, and yet Jesus speaks against it in our text. How come? Because it’s not tradition in itself that is bad. It’s what’s being “tradished,” so to speak, that is, what is being handed on, and why it’s being done. That’s what was wrong with the traditions being spoken of in today’s Gospel reading.
For one thing, these man-made traditions were seen as necessary. You had to do them–even though God had not commanded them to be done. For example, you had to wash your hands at certain times and in a certain way before you could eat. But God had not said that you had to do that. That was a tradition added on by the elders. And so those rules should not have been made absolutely necessary, as though they were coming from God.
Secondly, these traditions were seen as meritorious, that is, you were earning your salvation, or contributing toward it, by doing these things. That too was what was wrong about these traditions. The thought was that if you did these things, and followed the traditions, that somehow you were piling up points with God. But the truth is, we sinners cannot keep God’s own law, which he has commanded, well enough to earn our salvation, even apart from keeping all the extra traditions that men have added on.
And that brings us to the third thing that was wrong with the traditions spoken of, and spoken against, in our text. The scribes and Pharisees were using the traditions of the elders to avoid doing the things that God does command. That is specifically what Jesus condemns. You see, there was a tradition that if you declared some of your money “Corban,” that is, a gift dedicated to God, then it was off-limits–you could not use that money for any other purpose. OK, fair enough. It is good to set some of our money aside for offerings to God. However, the scribes and Pharisees abused that tradition. If their parents became old and needed their help, they would say they had set their extra money aside as “Corban” and therefore they could not spend it to help their parents. That was outrageous, Jesus says. The Pharisees and scribes were circumventing a direct command from God, the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother,” and they were using a man-made tradition about “Corban” as their excuse. That is the kind of tradition that Jesus condemns, namely, a man-made tradition used to get around a God-given command.
So when a man-made tradition is taught as being absolutely necessary, when it is done in order to earn merit before God, or when it is used to take precedence over God’s clear commandments, then that kind of tradition is definitely wrong. That’s what Jesus condemns, and that’s what we should condemn, too.
But that is not the case with many of the good traditions that we have in the church. Those traditions we would be wise to keep and to pass on to the next generation. Included among these good traditions would be the Creeds, for example. Here we have the teaching of the apostles, passed on for centuries in the church, and preserved for us in succinct, memorable form. The Creeds pass on the saving gospel of Christ, which we have received, and in which we stand, and by which we are saved. What tradition could be better than the Nicene Creed, for instance, which teaches us of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven . . . and was crucified also for us,” and who “rose again according to the Scriptures,” and so on?
You see, that is the gospel itself, which the apostles preached, and which we believe, and which delivers to us all the saving benefits of Christ. Our works won’t gain us entry into heaven. Our hands are defiled with sin, and all our self-chosen works will not get that stain out. Only the blood of Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, will do that. And it does! Jesus’ blood cleanses us from all our sins. The washing God does in Holy Baptism applies the forgiveness Christ won for us on the cross. This is the gospel, and it is for you! And this gospel, passed on to us in Word and Sacrament–this gospel delivers the goods. That is the value of tradition in the good sense. And that is what we should preserve, therefore, in the teachings and practices of the church.
And so our liturgy, the church’s historic liturgical form, handed down and shaped over many centuries–yes, the structure and texts of the Divine Service, which we have and use in our hymnal–this is something worth preserving and passing on. The church’s liturgy has stood the test of time. The liturgy both expresses and teaches the beautiful gospel of Christ better than anything else that some individual could come up with on his own from week to week. So there’s no need to throw out the liturgy. Better to learn and use it and to do it well. It’s a good tradition that we have received, and it delivers the goods.
Our friend Tevye would tell us, “Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Well, not exactly. If our traditions get in the way of the word of God, no. Then the traditions of the elders are bad. But when tradition serves the word of God, to help pass along the one and only saving gospel of Christ, then we can say–and sing out with no shame: “Tradition! Tradition!”